On the morning of January 7, Paris time, the Kouachi brothers stormed into the offices of Charlie Hebdo and gunned down 11 people, wounding 11 more. I promptly found solidarity with the French masses, shouting (to myself, since nobody else was interested), “I am Charlie!”
Being a (part-time) writer, I’m naturally opposed to the idea of shooting people because you don’t like what they publish. However, my solidarity with the French masses lasted only for a few hours. The very next morning, I picked up my trusty copy of the New York Times where the newsboy had tossed it, out in the middle of the street, and observed that David Brooks already had a column on the subject.(1)
I naturally assumed that Brooks would also make common cause with the French masses, and would rail against the idea of shooting writers. Brooks railed against the idea of shooting writers, alright (he, too, has a vested interest), but to my surprise the title of his column was, “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo.” Huh?
Brooks divided the world of published opinion into those who sit at the “adults’ table” and those who sit at the “kids’ table.”(2) Brooks didn’t mention any of the adults he had in mind, though he clearly meant people who write for the major national newspapers and magazines, people like, well David Brooks. And Fareed Zakaria and Paul Krugman, people whose opinions you might disagree with, but who uphold certain standards of decency and thoughtful, polite conversation, who don’t toss around insults and thunderbolts.
Brooks did mention a couple of people who occupy the “kids’ table:” Ann Coulter (on the right) and Bill Maher (on the left). While the adults’ table is respectable and sometimes slightly boring, the kids’ table isn’t even trying to present thoughtful arguments. Down there they are really in the game of providing entertainment for the true believers who already agree with them, and to cause sputtering outrage for the people on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Personally, I like to think that I belong at the adults’ table, though perhaps way down at the far end of it, almost out of range of the polite conversation going on up at the head of the table. My blog posts, in particular, tend to trend in the direction of hurling thunderbolts, though my books and white papers are more dignified. Whenever someone has asked me to turn a blog post into an op-ed or article, I have to re-word everything.(3)
Brooks suggests that the folks sitting at the kids’ table do sometimes play a useful role: puncturing the pompousness of politicians, for example (always a useful service) or exposing the stupidity of fundamentalists. For these reasons, he opposes any formal attempt to suppress even the most outlandish of the provocateurs. Nonetheless, he argues vehemently that it’s important for a society to maintain the distinction between the serious and the puerile.
I don’t mean to put words in Brooks’s mouth, but in effect he is making the following distinction. The French, in their outrage over the Hebdo murders, are saying, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” What the French should be saying is something like this: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. And, oh, by the way, you’re a puerile jerk.”
Unless we want to be puerile jerks, it’s silly to shout, “I am Charlie!” We’re not Charlie and most of us shouldn’t want to be Charlie.
Brooks’ column got me to thinking about all this. I began to read up on Charlie Hebdo and on the French reaction to the attack, and what I learned startled me. In my next post I’ll talk about all that. It solidified my conclusion that “I’m not Charlie,” and neither should you be.
(1) I don’t know what the Times’ deadline is for Brooks’s columns, but he must have heard about the shooting and dashed the thing straight off, not even pausing to fortify himself with The Writer’s Aid: gin with a hint of vermouth, straight up. For a writer, there’s nothing worse than watching another writer dash off a complete, coherent column while you are still trying to log into your MacBook Air.
(2) Referring to men who’d been murdered a day earlier as “kids” is something Brooks would probably like to rethink. But his distinction is an important one.
(3) As an example, about eighteen months ago I posted a series of thoughts about the future of the emerging markets, called “Submerging Markets.” I was then asked to convert the posts into an article for the Journal of Wealth Management, a respectable, peer-reviewed journal. The journal article follows the argument of the blog posts slavishly, but it is written almost in a different language. Compare “Submerging Markets,” https://gregorycurtis.wpengine.com/submerging-markets-part-1/, with “The Qualitative Bear Case for Emerging Markets Equities,” The Journal of Wealth Management, Spring 2014, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 27-32.
Next up: Am I Charlie? (Part 3)
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